We Need To Stop Googling Our Symptoms Every Five Minutes
You’re lying in bed when all of a sudden you feel a strange twinge in your armpit. Soon, it’s all you can think about, with your thoughts preventing you from falling asleep.
So you do the only thing you can think of and roll over, pick up your phone and head straight to Google. Typing ‘strange sensation/pain in armpit’ into the search bar, you hold your breath and wait to see which results come up this time.
Immediately, you see a whole host of terrifying-sounding words. Swollen lymph nodes, lymphedema, cancer, the list goes on. Forums from other people experiencing the exact same thing pop up, and soon there’s no doubt in your mind you’ve got a life-threatening illness.
Even if the first few hits don’t seem like anything to worry about, they don’t put your mind at ease and you soon end up down a rabbit hole of Google searches – almost like you’re trying your hardest to find the worst-case scenario.
Because really, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
In your mind, any and all physical symptoms – no matter how big or small – must amount to a serious disease or medical condition. And Google is simply a way to confirm this.
Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. In recent months, I’ve been massively preoccupied with the idea that I must be seriously ill, using Google as a tool to confirm my worst fears before taking myself to the doctors – only to be told there’s nothing actually wrong with me.
Of course, on each of these occasions, I believed something was wrong with me so my GP’s assurances did nothing to lessen my anxiety. Well, at first they did, but a few hours later I was back to my same old routine.
That being: scanning my body for things that didn’t look/feel quite ‘right’; ultimately finding something wrong with me; Googling my symptoms; finding the worst-case scenario; panicking; spiralling; and so on and so forth.
So far I’ve diagnosed myself with diabetes, lymphedema, IBS, a brain tumour, a heart condition, skin cancer, breast cancer, a stroke, the list goes on. And nothing anyone said or did could reassure me that, actually, I was fine.
Eventually, after months of things getting progressively worse and the number of GP appointments I made well exceeding the ‘norm’, I realised that maybe the problem wasn’t with my physical health at all. Maybe it was my mental health that was suffering.
So this time, I decided to Google something that might actually be beneficial to my health – my mental health, at least – to see if there was a name for the thing I was experiencing. It was then I found out about ‘health anxiety’.
According to Anxiety UK, health anxiety is an anxiety condition often housed within the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum of disorders. Those affected by the condition have an ‘obsessional preoccupation with the idea that they are currently (or will be) experiencing a physical illness’.
The definition continues:
Those who are affected by health anxiety/illness phobia are convinced that harmless physical symptoms are indicators of serious disease or severe medical conditions.
For example, if a person experiencing health anxiety feels their chest is getting tight, they may believe that they are having a heart attack.
Basically, any physical symptom a person with health anxiety experiences – the aforementioned armpit twinge, stomach cramps, a headache, pins and needles, anything – they wholeheartedly believe it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong with them.
Although this certainly sounded like everything I’d been experiencing, there was still a part of my brain that was convinced the doctors had simply missed something. It wasn’t until I took a ‘DIY self diagnosis test’ – I know, I know, I really shouldn’t be diagnosing myself with anything – that things started to make more sense.
The DIY test consisted of six questions, alongside the disclaimer: ‘If you can answer YES to most of the questions it is likely that you are affected by health anxiety.’
The questions were as follows:
1. Have you experienced a preoccupation with having a serious illness due to bodily symptoms that has been ongoing for at least six months?
2. Have you felt distressed due to this preoccupation?
3. Have you found that this preoccupation impacts negatively on all areas of life including, family life, social life and work?
4. Have you felt that you have needed to carry out constant self-examination and self-diagnosis?
5. Have you experienced disbelief over a diagnosis from a doctor or felt that you are unconvinced by your doctor’s reassurances that you are fine?
6. Do you constantly need reassurance from doctors, family and friends that you are fine, even if you don’t really believe what you are being told?
I checked every single box.
Throughout all of this, Google was my worst enemy. It served solely as a tool to confirm my own worst fears, and I wouldn’t stop searching until it did. Admittedly, this was my own fault but it was something I couldn’t get out of the habit of doing.
But just how much of an impact does searching the internet actually have? Does it exacerbate the symptoms of health anxiety? Does it take over your life until it’s all you can think about? Or does it actually not have that much of an impact at all?
People without health anxiety fall into the latter category. They can use Google to look up their physical symptoms without falling into a rabbit hole of ‘worst case scenarios’ – for the most part anyway. For those of us with it though, it’s a whole different story.
For those of us with health anxiety, huge chunks of our day are wasted on our phones, our laptops, our work computers – anything we can get our hands on that will take us straight to Google.
Our social life, family life, work life are massively impacted; no matter the situation – where we are or the time of day – our mind is elsewhere, conjuring up potential illnesses as Google looms in the background.
You find yourself excusing yourself to go to the toilet because a thought has crept its way into your mind that won’t go away unless you check Google, or because you’ve just noticed a lump that you swear wasn’t there before and needs to be checked out immediately.
These behaviours aren’t just distracting, they’re destructive, with a spokesperson for Anxiety UK telling UNILAD it’s ‘important to try not to Google symptoms as much as possible’ when experiencing health anxiety.
The spokesperson explained:
Symptom checking on the internet often leads to misleading information which usually gives the individual the very worst case scenario of their symptom.
What might only be a migraine, could be diagnosed as a brain tumour by Dr. Google. This information can trigger health anxiety and the worry and panic it brings.
In 2019, health anxiety was the third highest presentation of anxiety to the organisation, behind only Generalised Anxiety Disorder and mixed anxiety and depression. One reason for this, the spokesperson said, may be the ‘mass of readily available information’ on the internet, which ‘always gives you the very worst case scenarios’.
‘Another reason can also be the sensationalised information that can be found online, linking day to day experiences with long term or terminal illnesses,’ they explained.
For someone in my situation who can’t stop Googling my symptoms, the spokesperson said perhaps the best way to break this cycle is to reduce the amount of Googling you do over time. This is because the habit can be a very difficult one to break: ‘As with anything, it is very hard to go teetotal’.
Rather than just trying to give it up completely then – because trust me, it won’t work – Anxiety UK advises making a note of how many times you find yourself looking up symptoms every day. If it’s 10 times a day, try to reduce it by two per week.
Then keep doing this each week until the number has gradually reduced; so the first week you can continue to Google 10 times a day, the next week reduce this to eight times a day, the next to six, etc.
Obviously, each person experiencing health anxiety is different and certain techniques might not work for everyone. But this approach is certainly a starting point, and one which helps reduce the need to check your symptoms in a manageable and sustainable way.
Whatever you choose to do is your choice; if therapy feels like the right move for you, go for it. If you don’t have the means or feel like therapy isn’t up your street, that’s okay too.
Just please make sure to reach out to your friends, family, people who care for you – because ultimately, they’re the ones who will be able to help you get through it.
And please, whatever you do, try to stop Googling your symptoms.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]